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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Siegfried - music drama in three acts (1871)
Gustav Neidlinger (bass) ... Alberich
Hans Hotter (bass) ... Wanderer/Wotan
Josef Greindl (bass) ... Fafner
Paul Kuen (ten) ... Mime
Maria von Ilosvay (alto) ... Erda
Astrid Varnay (sop) ... Brunnhilde
Wolfgang Windgassen (ten) ... Siegfried
Ilse Hollweg (sop) ... Woodbird
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra/Joseph Keilberth
recorded live in stereo at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival
TESTAMENT SBT4 1392 [4 CDs: 51.24 + 57.03 + 57.11 + 63.51]
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It is beyond belief that this outstanding Siegfried languished in the Decca archives for over fifty years. Recorded live in stereo during the 1955 Bayreuth Festival it was subsequently vetoed for release by producer John Culshaw and other Decca managers to protect the projected studio Ring, conducted by Solti between 1958 and 1965. The Testament booklet wades through the complex history but needless to say Decca's mistake is immediately apparent as this new Siegfried scores over the Decca studio (over)production in every respect, particularly conducting and sheer dramatic theatricality. Indeed, this is now the finest stereo Siegfried available.

Decca's live engineering is astonishingly vivid. Wagnerians forced to listen beyond the distanced murky sonics of various pirate Bayreuth 1950s Rings will rejoice in the revealed instrumental colours, most obviously in the woodwind clarity and beautiful bass presence. Singers are forward but not to the detriment of the orchestra, a serious disappointment in the famous 1953 Krauss Bayreuth Ring.

Listeners will take a moment to adjust to the violins being on the right and, in keeping with the layered Bayreuth pit, timpani and brass are recessed, but not to the excessive extent of Philips' Bayreuth Boulez Ring. The only thing missing compared with most pirate 1950s broadcasts is the more resonant stage where you can hear the 'hall' acoustic better. But I respect the engineers' decision to bring microphones closer, letting us hear detail whilst maintaining balance and warmth.

Be warned you will hear limitations of the fifty year old tapes in some far from excessive compression and a slight lack of inner clarity when the full orchestra opens out. Instruments and voices do not suddenly lurch forward/backward, unlike the super-multi-miked opera broadcast horrors foisted on us by the BBC these days. Here everything sounds comparatively natural.

Testament's claim that the recording is live may not be completely correct. There are rumours that Windgassen's hammer strikes at the end of Act I were not on the beat and that musicians were recalled after performances to patch the passage. There is no mention in the Testament booklet so who knows?

The performance is a special triumph for Keilberth and immediately places him amongst the finest Wagner conductors on record. Lyricism and warmth are the distinguishing features here but Keilberth also builds long passages towards the most exciting crescendi. Try the final duet from the gently floated Idyll theme which gradually unfolds outwards to the virile, but not overpowering playing, especially from full romantic strings, as Siegfried and Brünnhilde finally embrace. There is never a feeling that the music is forced or pushed, unlike Solti - and Keilberth's colours are darker and richer than those secured by Böhm.

Another difference between Keilberth and Solti is that Keilberth does not break phrases with excessive clipped attacks - I can almost see the barlines - but tends to phrase more evenly and sensitively, as if the orchestra is singing naturally with the cast.

Keilberth conducted in the shadow of contemporaries like Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler. Going back to that final duet, Knappertsbusch (live 1958) is slower but with deeper muscular power. But to really hear the duet passion unleashed try Furtwängler (live 1953). The tender return of the Idyll theme brings tears to the eyes. Then the voices of the orchestra ripple outward in ever enlarging rhythmic waves until strings and brass generate a huge swagger within the most extraordinary rubato; Furtwängler's exciting rhythmic grip is seldom commented on - commentators tend to focus on his amazing colouristic and dramatic insights. Keilberth cannot match this, but could anyone?

Overall though, Keilberth was not given the recording profile of lesser Wagner conductors and it is sad he is not here to enjoy the recognition this Ring cycle will bring.

Varnay is in the same fresh steady voice of her stunning 1951 live Götterdämmerung - also on Testament. I do not enjoy her fruity lower register tone but her voice brightens with clear focus as she extends upwards. Varnay occasionally swells into notes but I love the exhilarating way she nails notes squarely when she chooses. Solti's Nilsson scores over Varnay for accuracy and power but Varnay is easier on the ear and is more dramatically immersed in Brünnhilde's character having greater colour and scale.

Mödl for Furtwängler may scoop and swoop but her chesty soprano has even more astonishing colours than Varnay, culminating in a love duet for Furtwängler (1953) that makes me hope fire extinguishers were on hand in the wings. Mödl was also the alternate Brünnhilde in the 1955 Bayreuth Keilberth Ring and that cycle was also recorded by Decca - in stereo too? Let's hope this also appears one day. But if you want a beautiful dramatic Brünnhilde who combines womanly tone with blistering accuracy there is no looking past Rita Hunter for Goodall.

Hotter is instantly recognisable, singing his famous Wotan with deep authority, bringing the text to life. Whilst I appreciate Culshaw's efforts to reveal Wagner's wondrous orchestration in the studio Ring, the more forward placement of the voices in this live set lets us appreciate the sheer resonance of Hotter's tone better. His confrontation with the dark metal of Gustav Neidlinger's Alberich, shot through with malice and bitterness, makes me long for the release of Keilberthís Rheingold in two month's time.

Paul Kuen's Mime almost steals the show. He does not resort to whining caricature but colours the text and uses very agile phrasing whilst maintaining a singing line. Try the first track of CD2 where you can almost see the wide-eyed semi-comic horror of Mime fearing Fafner's supposed approach. Here the cowering neurosis underpinning Mime is tangibly real.

Maria von Ilosvay is a suitably rich and ethereal Erda, floating her lines. Josef Greindl is a deep and resonant dragon. I would be happy to take directions from Ilse Hollweg's Woodbird but miss the more crystalline beauty of Rita Streich for Furtwängler.

Brickbats? The first is presentation. My heart sank when I saw Testament issued this Siegfried in a cap box with the CDs in cardboard sleeves. CDs are more likely to be scuffed when slid repeatedly in and out of these sleeves and I wish Testament had stuck with the jewel box format of their 1951 Götterdämmerung. My Siegfried CDs are now transferred to normal CD cases which may look messy on the shelf but at least they are safer.

And these CDs need to be looked after as they are expensive. The set costs £50 in a major UK music chain or £44 from Testament's own website. That would make the whole Ring over £150(!), beyond my and other collectors' reach. Why release the cycle in separate operas at all? Better to have an entire Ring as a unified whole retailing at about £100. I would gladly forgo the 120 page booklet for a lower price. The type is tiny anyway and it is easy to buy a libretto elsewhere - try the English National Opera. A small booklet giving background on the recording itself plus synopsis together with the production photos would be sufficient.

I've deliberately saved the super-special for last. Windgassen's youthful Siegfried is beautiful in sunny ardent voice. Anyone who has heard Ring broadcasts from Bayreuth in recent years will know not to take Windgassen's evenly sustained power throughout the course of this huge role for granted. Windgassen should be discussed alongside Remedios, possibly even Melchior, and I wonder if it is his special contribution that explains why Testament took the ostensibly odd step of releasing Siegfried first?

So this Siegfried is a mandatory purchase for Wagnerians. Keilberth's Siegfried is better conducted than the over-excited, choppy Solti set, better cast than Karajan, better recorded and sung than Boulez and he digs deeper than the disappointing Barenboim. Levine's saturated conducting benefits from the peerless Met orchestra and recording but sunk by dire principal singers, particularly Behrensí wobbly Brünnhilde. I do not enjoy Goodall's leisurely conducting for all of his insights.

Looking ahead to future instalments, in the stereo stakes Keilberth has competition from Barenboim's well played, recorded and sung Rheingold but the way is surely clear for Keilberth's Walküre to come top of the pile. Knappertsbusch's magisterial live 1951 Götterdämmerung is in such astonishing sound that it must be considered 'honorary stereo' and will be hard for Keilberth to match. As you may guess, every Wagnerian should underpin these well-recorded Ring operas with the live 1953 Furtwängler set, despite the boxy sound and sometimes ropy orchestra. Furtwängler is simply the best Ring conductor.

Testamentís decisions about packaging and pricing are questionable. Each of the acts is under 80 minutes (78+, 75+, 75+). So it seems Testament has wasted one CD, caused unnecessary breaks in the music and added extra expense to their customers. A big thumbs down on that count!

The remaining instalments in the Keilberth Bayreuth Ring cycle are planned for release in March, May and July 2006.

Finally, I keep relistening to Keilberth's forging scene closing Act I. Keilberth naturally unfolds the lyrical strength of full rich Bayreuth strings, basses and timps deepen and gather force, Mime animates with quicksilver volatility. Then, capping it all, Windgassen powers forward, striking Notung with hammer-blows that leap through the speakers and lets his ringing heldentenor soar with joyous, excited wonder.

David Harbin

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